Donors Unite to Support Maine Agriculture

The Nichols Family farm in Auburn. Photo by Bridget BesawSince its founding in 1983, the Maine Community Foundation and its donors have consistently supported agriculture in Maine, from local farmers’ markets to statewide organizations committed to sustainable farming. In recent years, with the guidance and support of donors, the foundation has taken its commitment to another level.

In 2008, several community foundation donor advisors approached community foundation staff with a challenge: How could they make a significant impact on agriculture in Maine, beyond their traditional grantmaking? At the time, the community foundation was exploring low-interest loans as a possible tool for achieving philanthropic goals. The staff subsequently met with experts in the field, who shared their knowledge and helped identify opportunities for funding in Maine.

In the end, the donors, joined by the foundation, made a $1-million low interest loan to Maine Farmland Trust to support its Buy/Protect/Sell program. Through this program, farmland vulnerable to development is purchased, permanently preserved through an easement, then sold to farmers at a more affordable “farmland value.”

With support from the community foundation and its donors, Maine Farmland Trust has preserved more than 2,000 acres of farmland and placed six farms in six Maine counties into the hands of new farmers at affordable prices. The low-interest loan has also enabled the trust to leverage funds from other public and private sources and to expand the Buy/Protect/Sell program. “Ultimately, this means more farmers will have access to farmland,” says John Piotti, Maine Farmland Trust executive director.

For donors and funders, such a program-related investment, or PRI, presents an opportunity to provide a greater level of support than might be provided through grant funds alone. “Dedicating funds to a PRI basically creates double value,” states Jo D. Saffeir, a Maine Community Foundation donor. “It allows us to put our philanthropic dollars to work twice: first as part of an innovative loan program and then, when the funds are repaid, in the form of grants.”

Saffeir likes the idea of making loan capital available for good projects that otherwise might be challenged to find adequate and flexible financing. “Maine Community Foundation is well positioned to secure contributions from multiple parties to make something big happen,” she says. “It feels good to know we’re part of a large-scale conservation effort.”

A fellow donor agrees: “Teaming up with others is more efficient and effective than my trying to go it alone. My philanthropic goal is to make Maine a better place, both physically and socially, and this aims at [accomplishing] both.” Another donor saw the PRI as an opportunity to lead. “Our grant focus is on small scale, sustainable agriculture in Maine, exclusive of land issues, but in this case we made an exception in order to show some leadership to attract other funders.”

All donors agreed on the importance of having Maine farmland stay in hay or crops in order to help sustain agriculture, the growing local food movement, and efforts to maintain open space. Perhaps Saffeir puts it best: “I’m convinced that we will continue to improve the quality of life of Maine people, both young and old, as we protect the land that literally sustains us.”